The terrorist attack and ensuing siege and hostage taking at the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, has been ongoing for several days, but Kenyan authorities announced today that all the hostages have been freed, although gunfire was still heard in the background. A terrible price was paid for combatting the terrorists and freeing the hostages – altogether 62 people were killed and hundreds injured. There is much speculation about the nationality of the terrorists. It appears that at least some are of Western nationalities.
NAIROBI – Kenya said its security forces were in control of the Nairobi shopping mall where Islamist fighters killed at least 62 people, and police were doing a final sweep of shops early on Tuesday after rescuing the last hostages.
An overnight silence outside the large, upmarket Westgate mall was broken at daybreak with a loud burst of gunfire from inside, suggesting the complex had not yet been fully secured. A lone military chopper circled above.
“Our forces are combing the mall floor by floor looking for anyone left behind. We believe all hostages have been released,” the Ministry of Interior said on Twitter early on Tuesday, adding his forces were “in control” of the building.
A trickle of survivors left on Monday, but the fate of the missing was unclear four days after a group of between 10 and 15 militants stormed the mall, which with its rich clientele epitomized the African consumer bonanza that is drawing foreign investment to one of the world’s fastest growing regions.
Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said in a US television interview that “two or three Americans” and a British woman were among the militants who led the attack, launched on Saturday and claimed by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked al Shabaab group.
Mohamed told the “PBS Newshour” show the Americans were “young men, about between maybe 18 and 19” years old. They were of Somali origin or Arab origin, and had lived in the US, “in Minnesota and one other place”, she said.
US authorities are urgently looking into information from the Kenyan government that residents of Western countries, including the United States, may have been among the militants, US security sources said.
Speculation rose about the identity of the attackers. Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku had earlier said they were all men but that some had dressed as women.
Despite his comments, one intelligence officer and two soldiers told Reuters that one of the dead militants was a white woman, likely to fuel speculation that she is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who together killed more than 50 people on London’s transport system in 2005.
Called the “white widow” by the British press, Samantha Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack hotels and restaurants in Kenya. Asked if the dead woman was Lewthwaite, the intelligence officer said: “We don’t know.”
There has also been much speculation regarding the extent of Israeli participation in the rescue effort (h/t cba), particularly as the mall was owned by Israelis:
According to a Kenyan security source, Israeli forces entered the mall, where a siege has been ongoing since Saturday, and “are rescuing the hostages and injured,” AFP reported.
However, an unnamed security source told Reuters that Israeli advisers were helping in negotiations, but not in operations.
“There are Israeli advisers helping with the negotiating strategy, but no Israelis involved in any imminent storming operation,” the Israeli source said.
the tragic standoff at the mall in Nairobi caught my attention. I know that mall well. I have been thre many times, and actually escorted visitors through there for security purposes. It is a very upscale location, and frequently visited by foreigners. No doubt that was a orimary motivation for why Al Shabaab terrorists attacked it. It appears that the terrorists were very well prepared for their mission, and perhaps they had been trained to expect the type of countermeasures that were aimed at them. I’m sure that Kenyan forces will prevail, and it seems likely that they are supported by special Israeli forces as well (and also a US team). Therefore, please convey my thanks to the men from Israel who take on such a difficult and dangerous job.
Pete then added some detailed and very interesting background:
Anne – for me personally it was a bit of a shock to see a place I know well in Kenya (i.e. the Westgate Mall) suddenly be turned into a nightmare zone. As I said earlier, I have been to that mall numerous times, and I often take vistors (to Kenya) there for shopping and banking. By Kenyan standards it is quite ritzy, with a beautiful indoor design and a lot of light. It has many western fashions and more foods that are “western” – so it’s a popular place for the tourists to hang out. I do recall that they had active hand searches of all baggage at the entrances. There are also soldiers (askaris) stationed there, and policemen. But it is difficult for security staff in Africa to be always on high-alert … time just drags on in Africa and boredom is a difficult factor to overcome. Hence a terrorist team that is well trained could certainly penetrate the entrances – and that is exactly what happened.
Kenya has been getting more “professional” with their media coverage – they shut down the news and enforced a blackout a few hours after the incident started. So we only saw the photo’s from the start of the terrorist attack. From those pictures I could see that many diffrent Kenyan policemen, including undercover (criminal) and undercover (counterterrorist) experts all rushed to the call for help, along with Kenyan soldiers. The photo’s show a range of Kenyan policemen with a wide variety of weapons – it looks a bit “mixed-up” compared to what you would see in Israel or the USA. But that is typical for Africa. It was painful to see some photo’s of Kenyan policemen who had been shot in the stomach by the terrorists – they did not have bulletproof vests and just responded the best that they could. I hope they were evacuated and are OK.
To me – the most noticeable thing this time is that the terrorists were focused, well organized, and seemingly very well trained. They are getting stronger – it was a more professional enemy team than what Al Shabaab has sometimes used in the past. Considering that some of these terrorists were apparently foreigners from the USA and Europe – it is surprising how organized and prepared they actually were. It would seem to point to a high-level of planning – possibly with assitance of terrorist organizations outside of Somalia. That would be an important question to ask.
Anyway the good thing is that it is now over. I have seen emails from normal Kenyans on the streets of Nairobi – and they are quite shaken by this. We will see how Kenya responds to this incident. They are already occupying a border zone inside Southern Somalia (similar to what Israel did in Lebanon in the 1980′s). It appears this strategy is not foolproof, although I do think it has helped them.
Thank you Pete for sharing your personal experience and feelings about this terrible attack. The details you added about the abilities of the Kenyan forces and the terrorists give us a much deeper insight into this terrible attack.
Let us hope that the siege is indeed over and that the Kenyan authorities, with or without the aid of Israel, will know how to counter this dreadful terrorist threat.
I’m sure you all join with me in offering condolences to the families of those who were so brutally killed, and wishing a speedy recovery to the injured.